On March 11, Forest City Ratner Cos. Chairman and CEO Bruce Ratner put his full weight onto the edge of a steel spade and pushed ceremoniously into the Brooklyn dirt, breaking ground on the Barclays Center arena—the future home of the New Jersey Nets and the centerpiece of Atlantic Yards, a titanic mixed-use urban infill project that will ultimately include 6,430 multifamily housing units in 16 high-rise towers across 22 acres of Big Apple real estate. In a show of business, civic, and cultural coalescence around the project, Ratner was joined at the groundbreaking by New York Gov. David Patterson; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg; Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz; Barclays President Robert E. Diamond Jr.; and Nets investor and Grammy-winning hip-hop icon Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter. These heavyweights, in one aspect or another, are all publicly lending their support to New York City’s latest megacommunity. That’s not to say that everyone is a fan of Atlantic Yards, or megacommunities in general, which altruistically are intended to deliver culturally identifiable “placemaking” neighborhoods to thousands of renters while allowing for economies of scale in construction and operating costs, but in practice are perennially fraught with financial difficulties, landlord/tenant strife, physical upkeep challenges, and intensely focused and litigation-minded NIMBYism (particularly during design and development). Plans for Atlantic Yards, for example, were first announced in 2003, and it wasn’t just the economic collapse that has stalled the project some six years from its originally scheduled rollout.
“The opposition for this project committed to suing early and often to stop the project, and they lived up to their commitment,” says Maryanne Gilmartin, Forest City Ratner’s executive vice president of commercial and residential development, referring to Develop, Don’t Destroy, Brooklyn, the nonprofit coalition that unsuccessfully took Forest City through state and federal courts over alleged eminent domain abuses. These claims were ultimately rejected via a U.S. Supreme Court refusal to hear the case on appeal and a New York Appeals Court November 2009 ruling that was likewise in the developer’s favor.
“We always anticipate a certain level of conflict that comes with the territory in developing large-scale projects. You definitely need to be thick-skinned and hunker down for the long haul,” Gilmartin says. “None of what we do is simple, straightforward, or quick. This is not a guppy in the scheme of development projects; it is a whale.”
Big Properties, Big Problems
A look across the roster of American megacommunities—those projects that are often larger than many small cities, involving multifamily unit counts ranging from roughly 2,000 to 15,000 units (see “Jumbo Sized,” below)—confirms Gilmartin’s summation that these powerhouse projects are anything but simple and straightforward.